Kimberly Peirce, Chloë Moretz, and Julianne Moore on the set of Carrie
After losing out on a 2013 Oscar nomination in the Best Director category, Ben Affleck and his film Argo became the season's biggest talking point. After losing out on a 2013 Oscar nomination in the Best Director category, Kathryn Bigelow and her film Zero Dark Thirty faded out of the picture.
Already battling wishy-washy political arguments that threatened to shift the spotlight away from the film, Bigelow's docudrama thriller was all but knocked out of Oscar consideration when the critically acclaimed director failed to sit alongside 2012's contenders. The snub was a reminder of a sad fact that remains a talking point each year: In the 85-year history of the Academy Awards, only four women have been nominated for the "Best Director" Oscar. And only of them won: Bigelow, for 2009's The Hurt Locker.
There's an imbalance of female and male directors represented in the Hollywood mainstream. It's a point argued year after year, yet it's a statistic that never seems to change. According to a study by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, Executive Director, Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, School of Theatre, Television and Film, 18 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2012 were women. And only 9 percent of all directors working on those films were women. While that's a 4 percent bump up from 2011, the percentage of women directors working in 2012 was the same as in 1998.
In 2013, three women are slated to direct studio-driven, wide-released feature films: Tyler Perry Presents Peeples (May 10), directed by Tina Gordon Chism, Carrie (Oct. 18), directed by Kimberly Peirce, and Disney's animated feature Frozen (Nov. 27), co-directed by Jennifer Lee alongside Chris Buck. A few more will sprout from between the blockbusters into limited releases: Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa (March 15), Sofia Copolla's Bling Ring (June 14), Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist (April 26), Maggie Carey's The To Do List (Aug. 16), Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves (Sept. 20), Susanne Bier's Serena (Sept. 27), Diablo Cody's Paradise, and the Soska sisters' American Mary. Women are making movies, but considering the sheer number of films in theaters from year to year, they're not making enough movies — and they're rarely making them with the support of Hollywood.
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Chism, screenwriter of 2002's Drumline and 2006's ATL, makes her directorial debut this spring with Peeples, but breaking through as a female force in Hollywood required hard bargaining. "I've always been attracted to writer/directors and Nancy Meyers was a huge inspiration for me in her work," Chism says. "So, as a writer, I've used my script as leverage to get in the room to plead my case to direct it. If I didn't have that script, I don't think I would have been given the opportunity."
With Peeples — which stars Craig Robinson and Kerry Washington — ready for release, Chism already has a follow-up in place, a thriller set up at Sony. Despite having a feature under her belt, Chism says the process was the same: more teeth-pulling, more clinging to her script, more proving herself capable.
The writer/director recalls her first studio meeting, during which Fox gave her a number of different script ideas, none of which worked for the budding filmmaker. "We talked about all kinds of ideas and I hated all of the things they pitched me," Chism says. "I thought, 'This is a nightmare.' In that meeting, they told me they were toying around with a movie about a band. At the time, it was about a white kid and a black kid who can't read. And I come from the South and my mind went to historically black colleges. Thank God. And I remember, they were like, 'There are all-black colleges?'"
"I'm not sure if I'll have to do that forever," Chism says. "I think it has to do with power, basically, and in this industry, the writer doesn't hold the largest bit of power. So it's more palatable for people to deal with women as writers." Hollywood does appear to be more receptive to hiring females in that role; Lauzen's study reveals that women account for 15 percent of the writers working on the top 250 films of 2012.
Like Chism, Jennifer Lee also comes from a writing background. Before being recruited by Disney Animation head honcho John Lasseter to co-direct Frozen, Lee had sold two screenplays: an adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights and an original script being developed at Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way production company. She was brought into the Disney fold by her Phil Johnston, a friend from Columbia University's film school who recruited her to write on Wreck-It Ralph. After meeting weekly for years in order to "push each other as writers," Johnston asked Lee if she would be willing to move to Los Angeles on a week's notice to take over Wreck-It's script, which he had initially developed years before. The success of the 2012 Oscar nominee — and the nurturing environment of a long-gestating animated film — landed her the job co-directing Frozen.
Concept art from Jennifer Lee's Frozen
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Unlike live-action's homogeneous roster of filmmakers, animation has traditionally welcomed female directors. In 2012, Brenda Chapman became the first woman to receive an Oscar for Best Animated Feature for Brave (sharing it with Mark Andrews, who took over as director halfway through production). Vicky Jenson (Shark Tale) nearly took home the award in 2001 for co-directing Shrek — in the category's first year, only the producers were awarded with the gold statue. In the grand scheme of Hollywood, Jennifer Yuh Nelson possessed the most important honor: Her Dreamworks Animation film, Kung Fu Panda 2, is the highest-grossing female-helmed movie of all time, with a whopping worldwide gross of $665.7 million.
In terms of creativity, box office numbers are inconsequential. But in Hollywood, they're a calling card and a record-setting number like Nelson's Kung Fu Panda 2 gross goes a long way. Which explains why women filmmakers are climbing uphill to get projects with larger budgets off the ground. Running down the list of the highest-grossing directors of all time (based on BoxOfficeMojo.com's director filmography totals), we don't find a woman until No. 60: Lana Wachowski, director of The Matrix trilogy, who first entered the industry as a man. Further down at No. 81 is Betty Thomas, one of the few women to have shaped a career out of directing modest blockbusters. Including The Brady Bunch Movie, Doctor Dolittle, 28 Days, and the recent Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, Thomas' films have collected nearly $563.3 million.
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Chloë Moretz in Carrie
For women to stake a claim in box office history, they must be given the opportunity to direct blockbusters, the type of genre filmmaking narrowly aimed at adolescent boys. A 2011 study released by the Motion Picture Association of America cites that the gender composition of moviegoers was balanced, about 51 percent women, 49 percent men, with the 25 - 39 age demographic representing the largest portion of the audience, around 28 percent. Yet most of the major studio tentpoles are male-driven. Out of 45 movies based on comic books released between 2003 and 2013, only one of them was directed by a woman: Lexi Alexander's 2008 film Punisher: War Zone.
The lack of women represented in genre movies makes Kimberly Peirce's horror remake Carrie an event in itself. Like many female directors actively working in the film industry, Peirce is hesitant to make gender divide a talking point when discussing her new adaptation of the Stephen King classic. The Boys Don't Cry and Stop-Loss director wants to be seen as simply that — a director. Still, she believes women do add perspective to genre stories, and in the case of Carrie, perspectives that echo themes laid down by the book's author.
"What I love about King was, he was writing about a fear of the period," Peirce says. The director recalls King's notorious experience of working as a janitor and discovering a bloody tampon, a terrifying event that Peirce revels in. "Women may have fear about their tampons and their menstrual cycles, but you know what? They’ve got to deal with it on a monthly basis. It’s a fear that you know in a way that this guy may not know. So it took on epic proportions. So it is really interesting that it was a man’s fear that birthed [the story], and then I get to [view it] through a different tunnel."
Peirce acknowledges that Brian De Palma, director of the acclaimed 1976 version of Carrie, knows "a lot about women." Peirce also finds her approach to the material unique, because it's informed from personal experiences. "The truth is, I have a mother and I have had wars with my mother [and] I know what those wars feel like," Peirce says. "I know what those feel like from my perspective, the claustrophobia in the female-female, mother-daughter relationship. I also know how snarky the girls can be. It doesn’t mean the men can’t be. Female terror is a very interesting terror. It’s relentless, it’s diffuse, it communicates."
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For her follow-up to Peeples, Chism made a point to pen a thriller with a strong female voice, and it's a challenge for her. According to the writer/director, Drumline, ATL, and Peeples all tested higher with men, and she sees that as the result of an ability to write strong male characters. With her next movie, she wants to challenge the pre-conceived notions of what a movie with strong female characters has to be about. "I think that the similarities that a lot of minorities have to face — whether it's a woman in business or African-American — sometimes the reaction is, 'I don't want to make it about me being a woman,'" Chism says. "But I've yet to find the formula to walking into a room and an executive not seeing both things when they see me."
Over the course of her career, she's well-aware of what an executive is looking for from her. "I [can] feel the expectations that, 'Oh, you're going to do a chick flick and that's going to diminish the numbers we do.' I'd say that's 100 percent the case."
Producer Gale Anne Hurd is one of the rarities, a female producer who, while never stepping into the director's chair, has helped both men and women bring sci-fi blockbusters, independent dramas, and hit TV shows to life. In 2013, Hurd launched another season of her hit horror show The Walking Dead and debuted the teen romance drama Very Good Girls at the Sundance Film Festival. And yet, even she doesn't see much of a home for women at the movie studios. "I think it speaks to the fact that independent film is where it's at, because there were more films than ever at Sundance directed by women," Hurd says. "And mainstream film has really taken a step backward in so many ways and one significant factor is that you don't find much diversity in the ranks of directors. Now that's changing a lot in television and I think some of the best work right now is on television. The strides that women are making as directors on television is more than compensating for the steps back in the ranks of major studio directors."
The latest from Jane Campion — another of the female quartet to have been nominated for the Best Director Oscar — is a prime example of Hurd's observation. Sundance Channel's upcoming series Top of the Lake, a deeply cinematic crime procedural, was written and directed by Campion. The series premiered in full at this year's Sundance — the first TV series to do so at the festival. Along with Campion's ambitious project, the festival also played host to a number of female-directed indies, including Lynn Shelton's Touchy Feely, Lake Bell's In a World…, Jerusha Hess' Austenland, and Stacie Passon’s Concussion. Thanks to a frenzy of distribution company purchasing, most are expected to arrive in theaters this year.
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Kerry Washington, Craig Robinson, and David Alan Grier in Tina Gordon Chism's Tyler Perry Presents Peeples
In the male-dominated world of directing, those with clout are the ones who can bring along sea change. The female voices are there, they just need to be cultivated and supported. Lee has not been working with Disney for long, but the animation process naturally helped her rise to the top. It promoted her organically. "Animation relies on a large team of people — story artists, visual development artists, animators, and a diverse production staff," Lee says. "And we don't just work together on one film and move on; I'm working with a lot of the same folks I worked with on Ralph. Working together for years, we really get to know each others' strengths and talents. The women get the chance to shine equally."
Chism's film recently swapped titles, shifting from We the Peeples to Tyler Perry Presents Peeples. After persisting to hold onto her romantic comedy and direct it herself, she was okay with the change. "They got the movie, they got the script. Leverage diminished."
Adding Perry to the marquee also works in her favor: With a built-in audience, a stamp of approval from the Madea mastermind is the cinematic version of "Oprah's Book Club." He also worked as Chsim's biggest supporter. "Tyler was very supportive," she says. "He just let me do my thing. He read it, he had his ideas, and then he said, 'You know what, I'm just going to let you go for it and I want to see what your voice would be, your take would be.' When he needed to block for me or support me, he did that. I have nothing but appreciation for him as a producer."
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Diablo Cody, who wrote the upcoming Evil Dead remake and is expected to have her own directorial debut, Paradise, arrive sometime this year, shares the frustration over the gender divide. She sums up her feelings with comment that may sound defeatist, but it's honest and steadfast: "It's been that way for a long time, so I'm just doing what I can."
Lee feels similarly, letting her work on Frozen and her collaboration with co-director Buck speak for itself. "We share a sense of storytelling that doesn't feel male or female. I think we were cast together because of our shared vision for Frozen, and because we work well together."
On the first day of shooting Peeples, Perry phoned Chism with words of wisdom. "He called and said, 'Put your head down and make a great movie. That's all anyone cares about. No one cares about anything else other than delivering a great movie. Have a great one, bye.'" From childhood, Chism was taught that "excellence in work is really the only barrier-breaking formula." The mantra pushed her each day on Peeples, even when the scenes were at their silliest. "At the end of the day, for me, whether I'm a female or male, there's a lot of investment, a lot on the line, and you have to make your day, make it good, and make a great film."
This year will see the release of three studio films directed by women — a minuscule number. Diversity doesn't have to be forced into the industry — hiring talented directors should always be the priority — but capable and creative female filmmakers are out there, waiting to be employed. They can take on any project, not just ones that boast demographics skewing towards their own gender. "I think a good director can do anything," Peirce says. "James Cameron was not an Avatar. Coppola was not a Godfather. You’re always looking to any character and figuring out where you want to take it."
Cody gives us a little hope for the future (or at least, this year): "Let's look at the positives, which is that the worst movies are dumped in the first quarter of the year. So maybe it means the women directed all the good ones."
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
Additional reporting by Michael Arbeiter and Kelsea Stahler
[Photo Credit: Screen Gems, Hollywood.com, Walt Disney Pictures, Screen Gems, Nicole Rivelli/Lionsgate]
Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
Enigmatic and deliberate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy makes no reservations while unraveling its heady spy story for better or worse. The film based on the bestselling novel by John Le Carre is purposefully perplexing effectively mirroring the central character George Smiley's (Gary Oldman) own mind-bending investigation of the British MI6's mole problem. But the slow burn pacing clinical shooting style and air of intrigue only go so far—Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sports an incredible cast that can't dramatically translate the movie's impenetrable narrative. Almost from the get go the movie collapses under its own weight.
After a botched mission in Hungary that saw his colleague Jim (Mark Strong) gunned down in the streets Smiley and his boss Control (John Hurt) are released from the "Circus" (codename for England's Secret Intelligence Service). But soon after Smiley is brought back on board as an impartial observer tasked to uncover the possible infiltration of the organization. The former agent already dealing with the crippling of his own marriage attempts to sift through the history and current goings on of the Circus narrowing his hunt down to four colleagues: Percy aka "Tinker" (Toby Jones) Bill aka "Tailor" (Colin Firth) Roy aka "Soldier" (Ciaran Hinds) and Toy aka "Poor Man" (David Dencik). Working with Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch) a conflicted younger member of the service and Ricki (Tom Hardy) a rogue agent who has information of his own Smiley slowly uncovers the muddled truth—occasionally breaking in to his own work place and crossing his own friends to do so.
Describing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as dense doesn't seem complicated enough. The first hour of the monster mystery moves at a sloth's pace trickling out information like the tedious drips of a leaky faucet. The talent on display is undeniable but the characters Smiley included are so cold that a connection can never be made. TTSS sporadically jumps around from past to present timelines without any indication: a tactic that proves especially confusing when scenes play out in reoccurring locations. It's not until halfway through that the movie decides to kick into high gear Smiley's search for a culprit finally becoming clear enough to thrill. A film that takes its time is one thing but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does so without any edge or hook.
What the movie lacks in coherency it makes up for in style and thespian gravitas. Director Tomas Alfredson has assembled some of the finest British performers working today and they turn the script's inaccessible spy jargon into poetry. Firth stands out as the group's suave slimeball a departure from his usual nice guy roles. Hardy assures us he's the next big thing once again as the agency's resident moppet a lover who breaks down after a romantic fling uncovers horrifying truth. Oldman is given the most difficult task of the bunch turning the reserved contemplative Smiley into a real human. He half succeeds—his observational slant in the beginning feels like an extension of the movie's bigger problems but once gets going in the second half of the film he's quite a bit of fun.
Alfredson constructs Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy like a cinematic architect each frame dripping with perfectly kitschy '70s production design and camera angles that make the spine tingle. He creates paranoia through framing similar to the Coppola's terrifying The Conversation but unlike that film TTSS doesn't have the characters or story to match. The movie strives to withhold information and succeeds—too much so. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy wants us to solve a mystery with George Smiley but it never clues us in to exactly why we should want to.